A severely diabetic Valley woman faces criminal charges over her "service animal": a chimpanzee named Joey | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

A severely diabetic Valley woman faces criminal charges over her "service animal": a chimpanzee named Joey

Joey answers the front door of his home in Surprise, 30 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix. Playing the perfect host, he jumps into his guest's arms and lays a big kiss on his cheek before showing the visitor around the well-appointed, spotless 5,300-square-foot residence. Joey's wearing light-blue pajamas colorfully adorned...
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Joey answers the front door of his home in Surprise, 30 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix.

Playing the perfect host, he jumps into his guest's arms and lays a big kiss on his cheek before showing the visitor around the well-appointed, spotless 5,300-square-foot residence.

Joey's wearing light-blue pajamas colorfully adorned with space ships, planets, and the words, "Out of This World." But it's early on a balmy August morning, so why stand on ceremony?

He leads the way up to the second story, and steps over to a pool table, next to which a hairy, 20-year-old tree sloth named Pooh Bear quietly hangs by his toes upside down in a cage.

Next stop is a movie-screening room, where Joey reclines in a big black chair for a moment.

Then it's back downstairs, where he plops into a large beanbag chair and stares up at a television set.

It's that impish cartoon monkey Curious George on the screen, in yet another pickle, and Joey instantly is transported, maybe because he's a 3-year-old chimpanzee — a real-life version — himself.

The son of onetime Ringling Brothers chimps Jenny and Tony, Joey was born in captivity in 2005 at a wildlife preserve in the Texas Hill Country called the Sunrise Exotic Ranch.

He averts his eyes when goofy George gets bopped on the head, and jumps for joy when the cartoon character does something silly.

But Joey doesn't sit still for long.

He grabs a skateboard as a chow named Harley looks on (two other dogs are somewhere else in the house), crouches down, and propels himself across the long hallway.

For safety purposes, Joey is tethered to a 15-foot leash handled by one of his owners.

Joey recently celebrated his birthday with a pool party here at the home of Kristy Pruett and ex-husband Andrew (yes, ex-husband — the couple say they reunited shortly after their 2003 divorce).

But the chimp suffers from several food allergies and couldn't partake of his own cake.

Kristy comes into the living room and introduces herself. She is a slight, 42-year-old woman with pale, delicate features and a sweet, engaging manner.

Giggling a little, she explains that Joey sleeps between her and Andrew at night.

Waiting for the punch line? You don't need one with a blonde, her ex-husband, and their chimp in bed together, but here goes: "Get your grubby paws off of me, you hairy beast! Whoops. Sorry, Joey."

Though they dote on their chimp like proud parents, Kristy and Andrew say they consider Joey a "service animal," not a pet.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as "any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government."

A disability is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity."

Examples of those activities, according to ADA standards, are walking, seeing, speaking, hearing, breathing, performing manual tasks, or caring for one's self.

Kristy suffers from a severe case of Type 1 juvenile diabetes, and the problems caused by the disease include her deteriorating eyesight and dangerously unpredictable fluctuations of her blood sugar.

Exactly how Joey "assists" Kristy goes to the heart of this story, but hold on a moment.

Joey weighs 27 pounds, much less than what he will weigh when he reaches adulthood. Chimpanzees can weigh up to 200 pounds, though Kristy says Joey's mother was small, probably 80 pounds or so.

"Come on, Joey!" she tells her attentive chimp. "Show me your belly button!"

The animal rolls on its back, and jabs a long, hairy, eerily human-looking finger at his navel.

"There it is!" Kristy shrieks at him. "There's that fat belly! What a good boy!"

Though the mood is light, the reason for the guest's presence hovers like a cloud.

The state of Arizona considers Joey an illegal chimpigrant, if you will, and has expended untold resources and money trying to force Kristy to export her primate.

Which's the last thing she wants to do.

Arizona Game and Fish officials claim that Kristy illegally imported Joey from Texas last year, breaking laws against bringing in "restricted wildlife" for more than 60 days without a special permit.

Orangutans, gorillas, and numerous other creatures also fit into the category.

For some reason, the regulations don't list other primates, such as baboons, capuchins, or macaques, as "restricted."

Those animals are covered under Arizona's "infant primate" rule, which says no primates less than half of their anticipated adult weight may be imported into the state.

Kristy previously owned a macaque named Andy (named after her ex-husband) for a decade. Andy died in June 2006 of complications after surgery.

Kristy imported Andy to Arizona before the state implemented its infant primate rule. She says Game and Fish personnel knew about the 40-pound macaque, which she regularly took with her to supermarkets, restaurants, and on plane trips — even on one memorable trip to the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld.

According to state regulations, Kristy shouldn't have been allowed to take the macaque out in public, but she says Game and Fish looked the other way for years.

Agency officials dispute that they ever knew about Andy, though their own records suggest otherwise.

In July 2007, Game and Fish ordered Kristy to export Joey from Arizona within 30 days.

She didn't.

Then, last December 10, agency officers raided the Pruett residence in Surprise, where Joey had been living for about six months.

During the execution of that search warrant, the team of agents found Joey in his "enclosure," a 12-by-10-by-8 bolted-down chain-link cage that encompasses much of what once was a garage.

It's where Joey spends several hours a day hurling around on the exercise apparatus.

But the authorities didn't seize Joey that day, apparently because they had no place to put him.

Instead, they placed him on something akin to "house arrest" (sans the electronic ankle bracelet), a status on which he remains to this day.

Joey's in limbo until a U.S. District Court judge in Phoenix sorts it all out.

Kristy and Andrew aren't to take the chimp off their property except in case of a medical emergency. They say they have obeyed that admonition.

Kristy Pruett has had Type 1 diabetes since she was 8 years old.

It is a debilitating illness that includes potentially fatal bouts of prolonged hypoglycemia, or low-blood sugar.

Byproducts often include deteriorating eyesight (even blindness), kidney damage, and nerve damage, says Daniel Walton, a Phoenix doctor board-certified in the diagnosis and treatment of kidney diseases.

Kristy injects herself with insulin up to seven times daily and has to be hyper-vigilant about what she eats, how much she moves around, about exactly how she feels.

But she says she often becomes faint and disoriented without warning.

"People with Type 1 definitely have a tough row to hoe," Dr. Walton says, speaking generally. "They truly have to walk a fine line all the time to maintain themselves."

But the state of Arizona doesn't buy that Kristy Pruett is disabled or, even if she is, that Joey is trained to do anything to help her.

"The ADA requires only reasonable accommodation," agency regional manager Ron Lucas wrote to her in the July 2007 letter that rejected Kristy's request to keep Joey as her service animal.

"Your request . . . is not reasonable in light of the risk to public health, safety and welfare, and given no evidence that you cannot monitor your blood sugar levels absent the aid of a chimpanzee."

Lucas added, "You have provided insufficient evidence to show that juvenile diabetes meets the definition of, quote, disability, close quote, under the ADA."

Game and Fish officials involved in Kristy's case have said in court proceedings that they think only of seeing-eye dogs as service animals, not non-human primates.

But the definition of "service animal" has expanded in the past decade to include birds, pigs, horses, monkeys, and other creatures. (A fellow from St. Louis claimed a few years ago that his parrot helped narrow his mood swings, and that it should be allowed to ride on the city bus with him. He lost).

More tangibly, the Boston non-profit Helping Hands has placed more than 130 capuchin monkeys in the homes of severely disabled people since 1979.

The capuchins — better known as organ-grinder monkeys — are trained over a period of up to two years to fetch food, change DVDs, pull books off shelves, and to provide companionship for people unable to complete such tasks.

Joey's service skill is this:

Kristy and others have trained the chimp to race to her refrigerator on command to fetch her Gatorade or other sugar-laden substances when she's at home alone and suffers a hypoglycemic attack brought on by her diabetes.

By way of demonstration, Kristy sits on the staircase that leads to the second floor of her home, about 25 feet from the fridge and out of the line of sight.

"Mommy sick! Mommy sick! Get me sugar!" she screams.

Joey quickly moves around the bend into the kitchen. He opens the refrigerator door and grabs a ziplock bag from a shelf, and rushes back to Kristy.

The chimp unzips the bag and hands her a small plastic bottle of lemon Gatorade.

He turns his back to her, and she pats him as a gesture of thanks.

Though it's admittedly a show, Kristy says the fact that Joey can do this — "He never ever fails," she says — proves his value to her as a service animal.

Kristy says Andy, her late macaque, could detect shifts in her body chemistry while sleeping beside her, which he did until his death.

"My scent would change, and he would wake me or Andrew up, or would just go to the refrigerator and get me sugar," she says. "The state of Arizona may not want to believe it, but it's true. Both of my primates were and are capable of saving my life."

Kristy says Joey isn't nearly as keen yet on the scent thing as the late Andy was.

"But who knows what will happen?" she says. "He has a lot of learning to go if given the opportunity."

However, Kristy concedes her chimp inevitably will get too big and strong to live with her safely.

She testified during a deposition last April that "most people should not own a primate. It takes a very special person to own a primate . . . and it should only be the people who are trained and financially can support them and physically support them and know exactly what they're getting into."

Kristy considers herself one of those people.

Months before the Game and Fish raid of her home last December, Kristy had contacted the Arizona Center for Disability Law for help.

The center referred her to Julie Carter, its former executive director.

Carter, an attorney who specializes in disability discrimination law, says the situation immediately intrigued her.

She says, "Those unfamiliar with disabilities do not always understand the use of service animals [besides seeing-eye dogs] for other disabilities. This is especially true regarding the service animal needs of those with what I call 'hidden disabilities' — multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, diabetes, deafness, etc."

Carter also made the trek to Surprise to meet Joey, though with some trepidation.

"The state's message is that chimpanzees are killers," she says. "I didn't know much about monkeys at first, so I was a little nervous going out there. Then I spent some time with him, and it was, 'So this guy's a killer?'"

Last September 12, Carter and her law partner, ex-husband Doug Carter, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kristy in federal court against Arizona Game and Fish.

The suit claims the agency violated Kristy's rights under the ADA, and that she had done everything that Game and Fish employee Jay Cook had asked of her before she imported the chimp.

That included providing verification that Joey had received all his vaccinations, where and when, and that Kristy suffers from a severe form of diabetes.

The lawsuit alleges that state authorities "failed to modify their regulations, policies, or procedures as a reasonable accommodation to plaintiff's disability."

Kristy Pruett has asked the court to allow her to keep Joey until further notice.

She also wants the state of Arizona to establish a written policy allowing for waivers of regulations banning importation of qualified service animals on the restricted wildlife list, including primates.

Financially, Kristy wants the state to reimburse her for the thousands of dollars she's spent on Joey over the past year — including the $25,000 she paid for the chimp.

In answering the lawsuit, the Attorney General's Office said Kristy isn't entitled to special arrangements involving Joey because of potential safety and financial liability issues.

And the state contends that even if she were deserving of a service animal, Joey the chimp still is "restricted live wildlife" and is here illegally.

Game and Fish upped the ante last December when its agents filed criminal misdemeanor charges against Kristy Pruett for illegally harboring Joey. The changes came three months after Kristy sued the state agency, the timing of which does not escape her criminal attorney.

"This is a very strange case," says her Tempe lawyer, Ray Schumacher. "Game and Fish told my client what she had to do to get her service chimp into this state legally. She did what they told her to do. So then they put criminal charges on her after she filed her lawsuit against them. Like I say, very strange."

Each of the counts can carry up to six months in jail, though such a sentence would be highly unlikely. Kristy's next court date in the criminal case is scheduled for October.

All these goings-on concerning Joey have come during a critical time nationally for people who own primates.

On June 17, the feds proposed far-reaching new rules designed to give the disabled greater access to places such as courtrooms, theaters, and stadiums.

The news hit page one in the New York Times.

Buried in the story was word that, if the regulations become binding, monkeys will no longer qualify as "service animals," nor will pigs, goats, horses, among other beasts.

The 60-day comment period on the government proposals ended August 18.

What the new rules would mean for Joey is uncertain, though Kristy Pruett's attorney, Julie Carter, says she will argue that "the regulations should not be applied retroactively."

Carter says she's unsure that the new regulations concerning the service animals ever would be implemented.

On the legislative front, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this summer overwhelmingly passed the Captive Primate Safety Act, which adds monkeys, apes, and other primates to the list of animals that cannot be transported across state lines.

"We don't believe that people should own primates as pets or for any reason," says Adam Roberts, who runs the Washington, D.C. office of Born Free USA, a non-profit that operates a sanctuary southwest of San Antonio. "This is a very good piece of legislation, from where we sit."

Almost everyone who testified before a House committee about the bill supported its passage, including renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.

A Humane Society representative also spoke in favor of the Act, citing the "dangerous behavior, disease threat, and animal welfare concerns" inherent to primates.

Steve Ross, supervisor of behavioral and cognitive research at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, noted that only six states (not Arizona) have total bans on private ownership of chimps. Ross, who supported the bill, said full enforcement of the bans is difficult because of the "patchwork of laws, regulatory loopholes, and a thriving commercial trade in dangerous exotic animals."

Sian Evans, director of Florida's DuMond Conservancy for Primates and Tropical Forests, was the sole dissenting voice before a House committee.

She said she's no advocate of private pet ownership, but "my own life has been enormously enriched by the close contact I have experienced with most of the common monkey species."

Evans said the oft-repeated claim that primates are a threat to public health "is of special concern to me . . . Pet primates are not a documented source of disease to humans. The housing that primate pet owners provide can equal and sometimes surpass that at zoos and is far superior to conditions in any research laboratory that I have visited."

Evans is an expert witness for Kristy Pruett in the federal lawsuit.

With their 30-year-old organization suddenly imperiled, Helping Hands in Boston immediately sought an amendment to allow capuchins to keep training to be service animals.

"What's pending does threaten our work," says Andrea Rothfelder, the non-profit's director of development and communication. "We truly feel that trained capuchins are appropriate to have as pets in the disabled community."

Last month, U.S. Representative Don Young of Alaska introduced legislation that would allow trained capuchins to cross state lines to serve the severely disabled.

Passage of his bill seems likely.

Moe the chimp seems to come up in about every discussion of private ownership of monkeys.

Now 42, Moe was rescued as a baby from poachers in Tanzania and taken to California by his longtime owner, a former racecar driver.

His surrogate "parents" taught Moe how to eat with a knife and fork and, like Kristy Pruett and her ex-husband, let him sleep in their bed.

California authorities tried to remove Moe for years and finally succeeded in 1999 after the 140-pound chimp bit off part of a woman's finger when she stuck her hand into his cage. (His owners later insisted that Moe had mistaken the woman's red-painted fingernails for a piece of licorice).

That incident happened shortly after Moe had bitten a cop on the hand after briefly running away.

Authorities ordered Moe into an animal sanctuary near Bakersfield, where the chimp's owners came for a visit to celebrate his 39th birthday in 2005. Two teenage chimps, Ollie and Buddy, both with résumés in the entertainment industry, escaped from their cages and attacked the couple.

Moe's "mom" lost a thumb. His "dad" fared worse, as the chimps bit off his nose and caused serious injuries to his testicles, legs, skull, and mouth before the sanctuary owner shot the animals to death.

During the attacks, Moe sat silently in his own cage and looked on.

As a postscript, news reports last month said Moe escaped from his cage at his latest residence, a sanctuary in the San Bernardino Mountains called Jungle Exotics.

Moe still is missing and is feared dead.

Not surprisingly, the accounts of Kristy Pruett and her antagonists at the Arizona Game and Fish Department about Joey's importation vary dramatically.

Jay Cook, now the agency's education branch chief, testified in a deposition earlier this year that Kristy could have applied for a wildlife "holding license," under one of four categories, for the restricted Joey.

The categories are educational purposes, commercial photography, humane treatment, and advancement of science.

Cook said in his deposition that Kristy "told us that she intended to get a chimpanzee for use as a service animal. And then she also said that she was within her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that she could have any animal she wanted and we needed to modify our regulations."

Kristy counters, "All I wanted was to know what I was supposed to do in Arizona. Jay Cook told me what was needed, and I did what I was told — got the birth certificate, vaccination records, a letter from my doctor's office about my diabetes and other stuff. If Joey was going to be illegal because of the 'restricted wildlife' rule, why did Jay tell me to do all that?"

Both sides agree that Kristy first contacted Game and Fish in early 2007 to inform authorities that she was planning to buy an about-to-be-born female chimp at the ranch in Texas.

Cook testified that he'd never processed a request for a service animal and that he didn't know much about them, other than seeing-eye dogs.

"I'm not a lawyer," he told Kristy Pruett's attorney. "My expertise is in wildlife."

Cook also said he didn't know what brittle Type 1 juvenile diabetes is, though information about the disease is readily available on the Internet and elsewhere.

According to the American Diabetes Association, brittle diabetes "is a term used to describe uncontrolled Type 1 diabetes. People with brittle diabetes frequently experience large swings in blood sugar (glucose) levels."

Those who suffer from the disease, according to the literature, "are often troubled by frequent medical problems and hospital admissions."

Cook said the case of the felonious monk became "a criminal matter" in the summer of 2007, after a federal Department of Agriculture inspector told him that Joey was in Arizona.

Rod Lucas, a regional supervisor for Game and Fish, testified that he ultimately rejected Kristy Pruett's request to use Joey as a service animal because "they are inherently dangerous animals capable of transmitting disease and causing serious injury or death to human beings."

He said Game and Fish issues wildlife holding licenses to applicants only "if it determines that issuing a license is in the best interest of the wildlife, it will not adversely impact other wildlife in the state, and does not pose a threat to public health or safety."

But agency records for fiscal 2006-07 show that it denied only one of 180 applications for wildlife holding permits that year. In his own 24-year tenure at Game and Fish, Lucas said, the agency has rejected fewer than six applications.

He conceded that Arizona does issue licenses for animals that do pose a health and safety risk to humans, such as venomous snakes and other creatures.

But he added, "There's a threat to Ms. Pruett herself, in my mind."

Kristy Pruett is a native of Illinois who migrated to Arizona in the early 1980s with her pet tree sloth, then a baby she had "rescued" from an uncertain fate.

The sloth is another "restricted" animal, but its presence in Arizona is allowed under a "grandfather clause" that allows a prior regulation to apply.

"I've always loved animals, obviously," Kristy says. "I have a soft spot for them."

The mother of a 21-year-old son from a previous marriage says she's always tried to lead a normal life despite her lifelong battle with diabetes.

"There have been a lot of ups and downs along the way," Kristy says. "I haven't been able to work for a long time, and I can't get health insurance now because of my pre-existing condition. But I've been lucky in a lot of ways."

The upside is that she has immediate family in Arizona (though her mother and a brother died last year), as well as a steady financial position, made possible by her ex-husband — a successful real estate agent — and her father.

Kristy says she long has been fascinated by primates and bought her late macaque Andy in the mid-1990s.

"He was a calm, intelligent animal who took to training like nobody's business," she says. "Honestly, he saved my life, or kept me from slipping into a coma or whatever many, many times."

Soon after Andy died in June 2006, she started to think about replacing him with another primate, Kristy says.

A frequent visitor to the Sunset Exotic Ranch — the Texas bed-and-breakfast animal ranch near Austin — she already had met baby Joey.

The ranch curator had taken Joey from his indifferent mother, Jenny, at the ranch soon after his birth.

She says the curator "told me that he's fallen in love with you. This was even before Andy died. I could see that [baby Joey] was smart as a whip and had been around people, and was a very good little guy. And we were already bonded from my visits out there."

But Kristy didn't purchase Joey until after the unborn female chimp she originally had identified as her replacement service animal didn't survive her mother's surgery.

"The training started right away, but it's a long and endless process," Kristy says. "But he's a smart one; believe me."

He's also a handful, and considering the chimp's daily routine in Surprise, it seems that Kristy and especially her ex-husband Andrew spend as much time being "service humans" to Joey as vice versa.

Andrew says he changes Joey's diapers about six times a day and awakens hourly during the night to give the chimp an eight-ounce bottle.

Every hour?

"Yup," Andrew says. "You get used to things, and it becomes part of your life."

Joey is allergic to soy products and several other substances, so the couple fixes him meals compatible with his dietary needs — chicken Caesar salad with special dressing is a favorite.

They make sure the chimp gets hours of exercise every day, though his "house arrest" status doesn't allow them to walk Joey to the jungle gyms at a nearby park, where the neighbor kids used to enjoy him.

With Andrew's help, Joey takes a shower every day and has learned how to brush his teeth with an electric brush.

Earlier this year, Assistant Attorney General Rachel Bacalzo grilled Kristy in a deposition conducted as part of the federal lawsuit.

Kristy told the attorney, "I just need [Joey] at my home when I'm alone. It isn't that I want him to grow old here. I just want him to be my service animal while he's living in my house. I can't lead a normal life. I'm dependent on food, insulin, and medical help at all times."

"Have you ever read in any of your research that chimpanzees can bite off fingers?" Bacalzo asked her.

"That is always adult chimpanzees," Kristy replied. "I am very, very careful with who I allow to be around my primate, and how he is with me . . . A lot of the primates, when you look at them, they're biters, and I didn't want one I wasn't familiar with, that I hadn't trained with. I did not want to be fighting a biting monkey."

Kristy agreed that Joey may well pose physical danger to her after he matures, "but not while he's an infant. He couldn't attack and hurt me."

"So, you're putting your life in the hands of a chimpanzee?" Bacalzo asked her.

"I'm asking him to go get me sugar, and he's providing that for me."

The opposing attorney wondered why Kristy doesn't keep a telephone at hand in case she suddenly becomes ill.

"The problem with the phone is, wherever you are, you go dizzy," Kristy said. "You go down to the ground. You get wobbly. You get faint . . . When I have Joey in my home and I tell him to go get sugar, he gets me sugar within seconds."

"Do you feel the state of Arizona taxpayers should purchase the chimpanzee for you?" Bacalzo asked

"I feel that the state of Arizona should not have asked me to get rid of my service animal, Joey," Kristy answered. "I feel like the taxpayers' money should not be fighting me on possessing my service animal."

Back at her home, Kristy Pruett says she's uncertain what she'll do if she loses her civil case and loses Joey.

"I made a lifetime commitment to that chimp when we bought him," she says, "and that means after he gets too big to be my service animal anymore and has to live somewhere else. I just hope for a happy ending."

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